World Cup 2007 February 14, 2007

Vaughan remains England's talisman

Michael Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff: England's two captains © Getty Images
England's management are keen to paint their team as a picture of serenity at the moment. At the last minute, their chaotic tour of Australia was transformed by a late and undoubtedly great surge that secured the CB Series and, in the eyes of several bookmakers, shunted the squad up as high as second-favourites for next month's World Cup. But at a damp and windswept Oval today, a more familiar picture emerged as David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, unveiled the 15 chosen men. Once again, England are launching themselves into a major tournament on a wing and a prayer.

The Barmy Army's favourite chant of recent years has been "Michael Vaughan, my Lord, Michael Vaughan." It is a mantra that England's selectors seem to have taken as gospel. For all his undoubted tactical brilliance, Vaughan's injury concerns are so acute that there is no guarantee that he will make it off the treatment table for long enough to have an impact on the tournament - although that, it seems, need not undermine the team's preparations.

"My personal wish is that Michael Vaughan gets off the plane at St Vincent to lead England," said Graveney, a statement that hardly smacked of certainty. "It's dangerous for a layman to try and quantify injuries, but we have a capable medical staff and we will give the injured players the maximum amount of time to recover."

Once again, Vaughan's presence is an indictment of the lack of faith that England's think-tank have in Andrew Flintoff's captaincy skills. The situation has further been muddied by the alarming loss of form that Andrew Strauss has suffered on this tour - in the event of Vaughan breaking down, the most logical choice to step in ahead of Flintoff is no longer guaranteed a place in the starting eleven.

"I need to sit down with Fred, listen to him, and have an honest, honest chat about how it went during the winter," said Graveney. "It's great to have a certain amount of euphoria after winning four [one-dayers] in a row, but let's not get away from being honest in our assessment of the winter. We lost the Tests 5-0, and the first six one-day internationals."

Even so, England - incredibly, after an 18-month period in which they have used 39 players in 40 one-day internationals - had only one moderate surprise in their squad. Ravi Bopara, the Essex allrounder, was slotted in at the expense of Lancashire's hard-hitting opener, Mal Loye, despite playing in just one match of the CB Series. "Mal's done nothing wrong," explained Graveney, "but two spare batsmen would be top-heavy. Bopara is a multidimensional player who brings energy onto the stage and epitomises the young players we have in this country."

Mind you, it seems a safe bet that Loye will be seen in the Caribbean before the end of the tournament. Although England claim to be upbeat about the state of their injury concerns (Kevin Pietersen has recovered from his rib injury, and James Anderson and Jon Lewis are also making good progress, according to Graveney) the subtle relaxation of the rules regarding injured players has encouraged England to back their crocks. Shoaib Akhtar and Andrew Symonds are two other star names who have been selected for their respective countries despite major doubts about their ability to last the distance.

Graveney said that England would not be making an official announcement about the men they have put on standby, but with the England A team all set to begin their tour to Bangladesh, the obvious contenders will be getting sufficient match practice in the coming weeks. Leicestershire's Stuart Broad, for instance, who missed the Ashes campaign but joined the one-day squad ahead of the CB Series finals was, according to Graveney, "very much in the frame" in the event of further injuries.

If the events of the past fortnight have proven anything, though, it is the unpredictability of one-day cricket. England's faith in Vaughan may yet be justified if he brings to the team the same sort of cohesion that he provided in Australia, where his captaincy in the must-win match against New Zealand, for instance, was superb. If he falls by the wayside before a ball is bowled, which - on this winter's evidence - is not out of the question, England will have to muddle through regardless. With form, good fortune and a bit of momentum carried over from Australia they could yet manage it.

"I read some comments recently that we shouldn't turn up in the Caribbean," said Graveney. "Now I read we are second-favourites. The truth would be somewhere in the middle there. If we play well, we are a match for any team, but for me, March 16, beating New Zealand, will be a hard challenge. They'll be upset after the CB Series, and they are one of the sides that can win the World Cup.

"In these tournaments, it's about peaking at the right sort of time," he added. "For the moment though, it's good for the players to have a bit of a break, to get away, have some time on their own, and think about everything other than cricket."

England squad Michael Vaughan (capt), Ed Joyce, Ian Bell, Andrew Strauss, Kevin Pietersen, Paul Collingwood, Andrew Flintoff, Paul Nixon (wk), Ravinder Bopara, Jamie Dalrymple, Monty Panesar, Jon Lewis, James Anderson, Liam Plunkett, Sajid Mahmood

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo